I read to laugh. Recently I had the exceptionally good fortune to read an advanced copy of Christopher Moore’s new novel, The Serpent of Venice, which made me laugh thirty-one times.
The first Moore book I read was Lust Lizard (L.L.). James Sallis praised Lust Lizard, saying that Moore’s novel provides “[like] all the best comic writing, something beyond jokes, caricature, spinning plates and crazy-tilt towers, something intangible that vanishes whenever we try to look directly at it: some sense, perhaps, that we’re still able to rescue from the ever-increasing detritus of our culture a decent, simple humanity.”
I read L.L. at a time in my life when I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to continue living. My amateur baseball career had amounted to nothing and I was trying to start an amateur ski career, but it was raining heavily in Maine for the week during my winter break that I’d convinced my godfather to let me sleep on his couch. Under normal circumstances I would’ve washed my sorrows away by bingeing on video games, but alas, my PS2 was in Ohio. Circumstances dire as they were, I sought out indoor analogue recreation and my godfather, knowingly or not, put an author before me that would, along with other serendipitous encounters, vaccinate me against the scourge of Existentialism and reaffirm my joie de vivre. That last phrase I pronounce like the good Midwesterner that I remain: joey’dee veeve-ray.
In the nearly ten years that have followed, I’ve read Moore’s thirteen other novels. The Serpent of Venice is a sequel to Moore’s Fool, published in 2009 to critical acclaim like, “In truth, Fool is exuberantly, tirelessly, brazenly profane, vulgar, crude, sexist, blasphemous, and obscene.” Michael Dirda of the Washington Post intended that sentence to come off as praise.
With Fool, Moore courageously launched into hazardous artistic terrain, a cultural rut, the reposturing of Shakespearean Drama. He took the plot scaffolding present in King Lear, shifted the narratorial duties to “Pocket”—the royal court’s jester, a.k.a. fool—and added “linguistic vestiges of Elizabethan times, modern British slang, Cockney slang, and (his own innate) American balderdash.” The intent was to do justice not to the Bard of Avon’s brilliance, but to the perceived apex of English Comedy and Wit, Monty Python. Thus a depressing, inbred tragedy became a Flying Circus.
The Serpent of Venice continues to mine that vein. However, the scaffolding is a gesticulating ménage à trois mash-up of Poe’s Cask of Amontillado and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Othello—with a brief fluffing courtesy of The Travels of Marco Polo. Fret not! By no means do you, dear reader, need to be familiar with any of those ossified tomes to appreciate Mr. Moore’s latest contribution. You may, however, wish to have the internet handy, as linguistic vestiges of Elizabethan times can be every bit as tricky as Cockney slang to interpret via context clues. (I’m not a “whingeing prat” nor a “bloody toss-bobbin,” “crafting jape,” promise.)
As a sequel, The Serpent maintains some of its familiar cast. Pocket, our beloved fool, remains narrator. His apprentice Drool—a re-conjured Lennie from Of Mice and Men with a more developed appreciation for the female bosom—along with Pocket’s well-dressed but poorly behaved monkey, Jeff, and Pocket’s sardonic puppet on a stick, Jones, all make welcome returns. Yet the setting has changed to “mythical late thirteenth-century Italy, where independent city-states trade and war with one another… Strangely, although most of the characters are Venetian, everybody speaks English, and with an English accent… Unless otherwise described, assume conditions to be humid.” Heinous fuckery most foul ensues.
Pocket is drunk. He is about to get drunker: It’s carnival and Pocket is easing his way into widower-ship—his dearest Cordelia is dead. He’s been invited to share his opinion on a rare alcoholic beverage in the company of a conspiratorial trio: Brabantio, a Senator; Antonio, a merchant; and Iago, a soldier. The fool has foolishly forgotten the Kerouacian directive to “never get drunk outside yer house,” and so walks right into a trap. He never should have followed known enemies into the catacombs. But he does and he gets poisoned with a sleep-inducing potion. Gets stripped nak’d and chained to a wall in a room that gets sealed shut behind brick and mortar. But as luck would have it, he is not the only inhabitant of his would-be tomb. He is blessed with a fairy godmother/mermaid/serpent/succubus, Viv, who first sucks him off (repeatedly), then helps him escape, and finally assists with Velociraptor-esque violence in avenging his would-be murder. That’s pretty much the novel in a nutshell.
“All comedies approach the tragic, avoiding it at the last minute through some fateful revelation or convenient deus ex machina.” The Serpent is no exception. Yet what I find remarkable about Moore’s books is just how thoroughly my disbelief gets suspended. The sensation is akin to what happens to folks when they walk into a casino (gamble), a bar (drink), or a hospital (die), all the time unconscious of the architect through whose conceptual halls we complacently walk. Permission to exist has been granted, and existence is predictable, redundant. When I read a Moore book I laugh. In the case of The Serpent of Venice, as noted earlier, I laughed thirty-one times. Take this excerpt:
“Oh, it is the royal fool,” she said, clasping Othello’s arm. We had met at a ball at the doge’s palace and I had twice been a dinner guest of her father at Belmont. She knew me. I had made her laugh. “Sir, I was so sad to hear of your queen. My deepest condolences, and if I or my family can offer any comfort, you need only ask.” She turned her head and there was such sadness, such kindness in her pity for me, that I knew at once how the bold Othello, pirate and soldier—that hard, scarred, killing thing—had lost his heart. And beyond a doubt, I knew what had to be done.
“Othello, you must, with fearful vigor and utmost alacrity, marry this bitch.”
In the margin next to it, I wrote “l.o.l.,” signifying that when I read the passage in a nondescript Denver cafe that has been playing Beck’s Sea Change on loop for the past decade, I broke the monotony with a chortle, causing coffee-sippers to turn and glare through their spectacles. On its own the passage is a simple example of the Benign Variation Theory of Humor Studies at play. It meets the three criteria:
(1) Something threatens one’s sense of how the world “ought to be.”
(2) The threatening situation seems benign.
(3) A person sees both interpretations at the same time.
In this case:
(1) One should not call a friend’s significant other (sig-o) a bitch.
(2) If one call’s a friend’s sig-o a bitch in the same sentence in which they recommend the friend marry the bitch, er… sig-o, they most likely do not mean the bitch is a bitch.
(3) It is OK to call a bitch a bitch when the bitch is not a bitch.
Maybe it isn’t so simple, and maybe it isn’t so funny. I think Moore too often falls prey to the same traps that have plagued many purveyors of comedy, i.e. The Superiority Theory of Humor. The general idea is that a person laughs about misfortunes of others (so called schadenfreude) because these misfortunes assert the person’s superiority over the shortcomings of others. Pretty problematic in a society that claims equal opportunity. Specific to the excerpt I took from Moore, a pejorative term was aimed at a female.
The key, I think, is in diversity—and I don’t mean that in terms of making hateful jokes towards every minority or marginalized entity. I mean that in terms of making different jokes at different times and—gasp!—on occasion not making jokes at all, but relating information in as cogent and succinct a manner as possible. Thus, I wrote “l.o.l.” in Serpent next to all sorts of things that have been described as “brazenly profane, vulgar, crude, sexist, blasphemous, and obscene.” But I also wrote “info” next to things like “All Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and from France in 1306.” Likewise, I wrote “truth” next to platitudes such as “When war makes commerce and commerce is law, profit rules prudence and justice is flawed.” All the while having my attention held by the promise of something new and unexpected to come: “He’ll have your guts for garters, will the Moor!”
Now for the criticism bit. Reading Moore is like watching stand-up comedy: Even when it is great, if it is excessively indulged in, it can get tiresome. (To test my point, try watching all the Chappelle’s Show skits back to back to back…to back.) This sensation is exacerbated by the fact that literature is a medium requiring a greater time commitment from its audience than nearly any other avenue of expression.
Comedy is escapist. C.S. Lewis wrote, “The only people who hate escapism are jailers,” but it’s important not to mistake escapism with escape, and it is imperative to study the bars of our cells for weaknesses. I do not recommend reading all of Moore’s books without pause, nor do I even recommend reading two in a row, but I do recommend reading any of his books before, after, or during the reading of something seriously serious, like the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Think of it as priming the funny pump with serious fuel.
According to Moore, he has sold the movie rights to all of his books, yet none of them have had the misfortune of making it to the silver screen. I hope that trend doesn’t get bucked. But from what I’ve learned through minutes of grueling internet research, on two separate occasions Moore fused his work even further with the long deceased Englishman’s. He put Fool on the stage. Should Mr. Moore let some trained thespians dramatically re-animate The Serpent,I will treat myself to a rare foray out from the rock under which I currently reside. In the meantime, I suggest all literate persons read Moore’s fourteenth novel, The Serpent of Venice.
Peter Nichols is a poet, rock climber, and vagabond originally from Toledo, Ohio.